“A Gripping Psychological Thriller with an Unusual Twist!” a book cover proclaims in big, bold lettering. But the book itself has little to do with the inner workings of the characters’ minds.
Is this truly a psychological thriller? Or has psychological thriller simply become a buzz phrase that we slap haphazardly on the cover of a book to make it more attractive to a select audience?
I’m not criticizing, mind you. For a short period of time, my second book had that tagline on the cover. The idea was that readers searching Amazon for psychological thrillers would also happen upon my book and become instantly intrigued.
I’ve since removed that particular description from my books because, with the exception of Sweet Cold of Winter, they aren’t psychological thrillers at all. They’re literary fiction, and misleading your readers is not only shady, but it’s risky, too. An excited reader who expects a gripping psychological thriller doesn’t want to be met with a cozy mystery or historical fiction.
What Is a Psychological Thriller?
Readers of psychological thrillers want The Silence of the Lambs. They want The Girl on the Train. Possibly, they want Frailty. Frailty was actually a movie, but it’s still an excellent example of a psychological thriller — dark, inner workings of a disturbed mind? Or messenger of God?
Readers who find something other than what they paid for in a book are apt to leave THE REVIEW.
Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of THE REVIEW. THE REVIEW is a psychological thriller in itself — the stuff of nightmares and Goodreads.
Needed Elements of the Psychological Thriller
But then again, if an author intentionally misrepresents the content of his book, he deserves THE REVIEW. A psychological thriller should leave you wondering exactly who you can trust. It should build tension and contain unexpected plot twists that you never saw coming. Skewed thinking, irrationality, unexpected reality — all are important literary techniques needed for the proper telling of a psychological thriller. And speaking just for myself, I need that A-ha! moment at the end.
I have my own ideas on what makes up a psychological thriller, and some might disagree. But when I see that tagline on the cover of a book, my heart begins to race, and my mouth waters, accordingly. I feel a smile form because the psychological thriller is one of my favorite genres, when it’s done well.
The Psychological Thriller Defined
Author Mark Edwards of The Magpies and Because She Loves Me offers sound advice on what readers should find between the pages of a riveting psychological thriller. In his guest post at Writer’s Digest, Edwards recommends a few key components, including:
- Average People
- Unusual Circumstances
- Recognizable Surroundings
- Unexpected Plot Twists
- Tension, Tension, Tension
In other words, the goal is to successfully enact terrifying events on unsuspecting people just like ourselves. The more identifiable the characters, the better. The more mundane the setting, the more we can imagine ourselves inside it.
One of the most impactful books I ever read was Stephen King’s Cujo. Not because the dog was so big and scary, but because I drove an unreliable old beater at the time and could put myself inside that sweltering car with that desperate mom who was so determined to keep her small son safe.
I’m not going to lie. Cujo made me cry. The book ended differently than the movie, and if you’ve read it, you understand. If you haven’t, and you like a good psychological thriller, you should. Some might actually say Cujo leans more toward the horror end of the spectrum, but I disagree. The characters are just relatable enough to feel decidedly real. And real dogs get rabies, no one can deny. Men abuse their wives and kids, mothers have extra-marital affairs, and children are more fragile than adults. As a result — reality.
Reality with a side of OH MY GOD!
THAT’s what makes a good psychological thriller.
Oh, how I love them.